Kirk Kerkorian's Alter EgoBy
The private jet awaits the trip to New York. Team Kerkorian is assembling in an eighth-floor suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Lee A. Iacocca is at one end of the sofa; at the other is Dan Taylor, a financial executive at Kerkorian's investment arm, Tracinda Corp. In the middle of all the activity, alternating between English and Armenian as he switches lines, Alex Yemenidjian is working the phones. A potential partner checks in from London. The boss, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, calls from Las Vegas, sending Yemenidjian to the privacy of a second room.
Until the Apr. 12 unveiling of Kerkorian's $20.5 billion plan to take Chrysler Corp. private, the 39-year-old Yemenidjian largely was unknown to the outside world. But to those in the know, he's the 77-year-old billionaire's alter ego. Indeed, as Kerkorian regroups to battle a staunchly resistant Chrysler board and management, he is relying heavily on Yemenidjian.
BLUE-COLLAR BOYS. While Kerkorian has maintained his characteristic low profile since the Chrysler announcement, Yemenidjian has been on the front lines. The day of the announcement, he fielded questions for two hours from reporters. Since then, he has shuttled between Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York on Kerkorian's private jet, chatting up potential investors and plotting strategy.
Yemenidjian's role reflects his tight bond with Kerkorian. Although Yemenidjian was born in Argentina and Kerkorian in the U.S., both are sons of blue-collar Armenians. When they met at a 1989 lunch, Yemenidjian was the managing partner of an accounting firm, providing financial advice to Hollywood types such as TV anchor Mary Hart and actress Jennifer O'Neill. Within a week, Kerkorian hired Yemenidjian.
A CPA with a penchant for Hugo Boss suits, Yemenidjian quickly became the primary dealmaker for Kerkorian's empire of Hollywood and Vegas holdings. He raised nearly $900 million in debt and equity to build Kerkorian's MGM Grand Hotel & Casino and helped the boss sell the MGM film studio to Italian financier Giancarlo Perretti for $1.3 billion. When Kerkorian wanted to expand his MGM Grand luxury airline, Yemenidjian sized up ailing Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines. Kerkorian didn't bid on either, and late last year, Yemenidjian unloaded the airline for a small profit. "Kirk doesn't like to use investment bankers," says Kerkorian's attorney Terry Christensen. "He makes his own decisions, but he trusts the information Alex collects for him, and he trusts Alex' judgment."
TYSON'S RETURN. Before the Chrysler deal, Yemenidjian focused on expanding Kerkorian's casino holdings. He moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 1992, and as chief financial officer at Kerkorian's 74% owned MGM Grand Inc., he supervised construction of the $1.1 billion MGM Grand hotel and hired its top staff. In March, Yemenidjian negotiated a six-fight deal--at the MGM Grand--for former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson's return to the ring after serving a three-year prison sentence.
Once Chrysler started heating up, however, Tyson turned into a sideshow. Yemenidjian won't divulge his next steps. But it's apparent that Kerkorian's angry Apr. 25 letter to Eaton, in which he challenged the auto maker to put his offer to a vote of shareholders, sums up Yemenidjian's sentiments as well. "Is the duty of management to protect their jobs and keep their bonuses, or to enhance shareholder value?" Yemenidjian asks. "And if they are not going to do something about increasing shareholder value, then we will do it for them."
How? Yemenidjian waves off the question. "Stay tuned," he says. "This is not greenmail, and we're not going away." With that, his team regroups to head for their next meeting. There's an airplane waiting.